Monday, February 26, 2007

Tuesday Column: The anti-war case for the return of conscription

This is a column I never thought I would write. Like most boys growing up in Australia in the 1960’s and early 1970s I knew dimly, and then with increasing certainty, that one day I would face conscription, training in the use of weapons, and then perhaps Vietnam.

It was a relief when Gough Whitlam abolished national service on becoming Prime Minister in December 1972. I no longer had to face the prospect of one day having my number pulled out of a barrel and being told to put on a uniform (something I was particularly unsuited to do).

Of all the Whitlam Government’s achievements, ending conscription is perhaps the most widely applauded.

And yet all these years later I want to suggest that it was wrong. I want to put the case for reintroducing conscription, and this time extending it to women and allowing no exemptions...

In order to explain why, I need to point out that while Whitlam was standing for election in Australia in an attempt to close down conscription, across the Pacific in the United States a very unlikely ally was working within the Nixon administration to achieve the same end.

Milton Friedman is best known as a father of ‘hard-right’ economic policies. When he died aged 94 in November last year most of the obituaries referred to him as the father of monetarism, the proponent of ultra-small government and the man who provided economic advice to the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

But he also opposed conscription, in part because it was economically inefficient, in part because he saw it as immoral. In his later years he nominated abolishing conscription as one of his proudest achievements.

To do it he had to change the mind of a pro-war President. Richard Nixon, long a supporter of the draft, agreed to appoint Friedman to a 15 member “Advisory Commission on an All-Volunteer Armed Force.” Five of its members began the inquiry supporting the draft, five, including Friedman opposed it, and five began without a declared position.

In his biography Friedman says the turning point came when the US Army Chief of Staff General William Westmoreland appeared before the commission.

Like most military leaders back then Westmoreland supported conscription. At one point in the proceedings he declared that he would not want to command “a band of mercenaries.”

Friedman recalled, “I stopped him and said, ‘General, would you rather command an army of slaves?’ He drew himself up and said, ‘I don’t like to hear our patriotic draftees referred to as slaves.’ But I went on to say, ‘If they are mercenaries, then I, sir, am a mercenary professor, and you, sir, are a mercenary general; we are served by mercenary physicians, we use a mercenary lawyer, and we get our meat from a mercenary butcher.’ That was the last we heard from the general about mercenaries.”

The commission unanimously recommended an end to conscription. After increasing pay scales for the military to ensure that there would be enough volunteer soldiers to continue the war, Nixon abolished conscription in January 1973, one month after Whitlam.

One-third of a century on, Whitlam and Nixon are almost universally seen to have done the right thing. Australia and the United States have successfully worked side by side in many wars and peacekeeping operations, most notably the first Iraq war, without even the hint of compulsory military service.

Australia has even taken the initiative in military action at times, sending troops to East Timor and the Solomon Islands with only the occasional suggestion that if things escalated there might be a need to reconsider conscription (and strike terror into the hearts of Australian parents with upper-teenaged boys).

Conscription has allowed Australian politicians and voters to fight wars and keep the peace without risk to themselves or to their families. What could be wrong with that?

Colin Powell provided a hint in the lead-up to the current Iraq war back 1992. The US ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright wanted soldiers to intervene in Bosnia. In the middle of a heated argument she is said to have screamed at him: “What's the point of having this superb military you're always talking about if we can't use it?'” Extremely angry and breathing deeply, he is said to have replied: “American GIs are not toy soldiers to be moved around on some global game board”.

Without conscription it has become easier to deploy soldiers as if they are toys, perhaps too easy.

When Australia’s Defence Minister and Prime Minister speak of the need to keep Australian troops in Iraq indefinitely it doesn’t arouse a groundswell of opposition. Most of us know that our children will not be at risk.

Earlier this month the US Presidential candidate Barack Obama accused John Howard of being “ginned up to fight the good fight in Iraq” so long as it did not endanger Australians. It is a critique that applies to many of us.

Economists, of all people are now debating whether it was wrong to abolish conscription, in part because of a reassessment of Milton Friedman’s legacy, and in part because of a growing concern that the people who share in the apparent benefits of deploying the military no longer share in the gravest of the costs.

Last month in The Boston Globe a retired US colonel Andrew Bacevich railed against what he said was the new notion among America’s affluent and well-educated that “defence was something ‘they’ did, just as ‘they’ set tables, collected trash, and mowed lawns”.

He said that meant that “we” have forfeited our say in where “they” get sent to fight. When it came to invading Iraq, the US President (and by extension perhaps the Australian and British Prime Ministers) were able to pay insufficient attention to what their citizens thought.

“Even today, although a clear majority of Americans want the Iraq war shut down, their opposition counts for next to nothing: the will of the commander-in-chief prevails,” he said.

Bacevich said it also meant that when “they” -- the soldiers we contract to defend us -- get in trouble, we feel little or no obligation to help. If the soldiers in Iraq really need a surge in troops to get them over the line as the President suggests he asks, why not send 100,000?

He says the question answers itself: “There are not an additional 100,000 Americans willing to commit their lives.”

If Australia had retained conscription it is most unlikely that we ever would have gone into Iraq. On the other hand I think it is quite likely that we still would have gone into East Timor. But whatever military decisions we did take would have been taken with much more gravitas than the recent ones – we would not have been able to outsource the consequences.

Introducing conscription once more would mean that if Australia did go to war, or stayed in a war, my own children would be at risk. I would hate it. Which is why it is an idea whose time may be coming.